Johnson’s ‘fight them on the beaches’ moment: true grit, or more shifting sands? | Opinion

Well, we can’t know if it felt as he had always imagined it might. But Boris Johnson has at last been required to deliver the type of speech he has been practising in front of his bathroom mirror since childhood. For future actors, it’s their Oscar acceptance speech. For Johnson, it has always been Winston Churchill at war.

No living soul has sought comparison with Churchill more frequently, or at greater length, than Johnson himself. Huge amounts of Johnson’s Churchill biography are an attempt to foreground faults in Churchill that might excuse those often cited as the author’s own. The thinly disguised plea to be considered in the same bracket as his idol frequently spills over into unintentional comedy. Churchill, Johnson is at repeated pains to claim, “might be thought of as a man whose love of lush language exceeded his good sense, who lacked that vital note of sincerity”. Might he, now. Elsewhere, I’m not saying that Johnson has been stung for years by criticism of his own uninspiring parliamentary orations – but he does go very far to point out that Abraham Lincoln received a poor notice for the Gettysburg address. Again: if you say so, hon.

So the nature of our prime minister’s obsession with Britain’s wartime leader, and what we might euphemise as the points of difference between the two men, tell us much about the individual to whom it has fallen to steer us through this current crisis. Some of Johnson’s supporters ardently believe he is going to turn out to be our Churchill; other Britons remain ever so faintly unconvinced.

Clearly, the first reaction to Johnson placing Britain in a form of lockdown on Monday night is: thank heavens he finally did it. It is something that many in the NHS and beyond have been demanding, for a considerable time now. Better late than never, is the message from a huge number of voices in that quarter.

Still, once the giddy welcome of what should long have been the basics – clarity and decisive action – has subsided, we probably have to put Johnson’s address to the nation into perspective. So try and imagine if, for an entire week before his “we shall fight on the beaches” speech, Winston Churchill had been giving rambling press conferences in which he said stuff like: “I want people to be able to visit our great beaches! I want to keep our great beaches open! I have to tell you that, should my beach waffle prove demonstrably unclear to millions, then I may be forced to bring forward measures to lay the ground for some kind of beach-fight….”

As it goes, the classic Churchill speech, made live in the House of Commons, was immediately recognised by political friends, bitter rivals and most of the great diarist chroniclers of the age as a sensational piece of oratory and a true spine-tingler. Johnson’s Monday night pre-record was met largely with relief. Thankfully, his famous smirk had twitched out only one-and-a-half times, reminding us that it isn’t only a tell of his fundamental unseriousness (though it is often that). Sometimes, it is the psychological glitch that occurs when he is being tested far beyond his abilities.

Soon after he took office in 1940, concerned allies appointed a doctor to personally care for Churchill. A physician named Charles Wilson was dispatched to see the prime minister in his Admiralty House apartments. “I have become his doctor,” remarked the disgruntled Wilson, “not because he wanted one, but because members of the cabinet, who realised how essential he has become, decided that someone ought to keep an eye on his health.”

There have been moments in the past fortnight to wonder if the same could not be done for Johnson, only with a head doctor. The need to be liked is a common enough syndrome in clinical psychology, if rarely exhibited to the degree in which it has taken hold in this case. But when you’re the point man for a nation in the early stages of a mushrooming pandemic, there is arguably going to be a line where this need tips over into something dangerous.

In due course – such a deceptively affectless phrase – we may discover how fatally that line was crossed for most of March. Our future selves may look back on this time as one in which, for all the seismic disruption, we had no idea how real it was going to get. Though snatches of horror stories are emerging from the hospitals, the first huge wave of them has not yet broken. When it does, that and the many waves that follow it will surely dominate tragically for months. With respect to those already suffering terribly, we are still in the very early stages of something that is about to become unimaginably bigger.

But there is a reason that dramatists are often interested in what latterly appears to be the calm before the storm. Think of the likes of the BBC’s 37 Days, which examined the complex currents at play before the outbreak of the first world war, and gave flesh to the convincing perception that the world drifted insouciantly into disaster. It is why scrutiny – even in times of crisis – matters. You’ve heard of straight-to-DVD; for far too much of the past month, it has felt as though some with power have been governing in a way we might call straight-to-public-inquiry.

Anyone who thinks “this is not the time for questions” might note that it was only when the questions rose to fever-pitch over the past few days that Johnson looked nudged to act. Those questions, often from ordinary citizens, were born of true concern and a true sense of duty – on which the government does not have a monopoly. There will be more questions like them in the weeks and months ahead, and anyone trying to tell you they shouldn’t be asked is a grifter. There is more than one way to love your country – and no member of the public should ever surrender the right to question what is in the public interest.

Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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